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Parashat Mikeitz 5781

December 18, 2020
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A D’var Torah for Parashat Mekeitz
By Rabbi Enid Lader

Pharaoh has had a sleepless night; well, one of those nights when you have a bad dream, wake up, get a drink of water to calm yourself down, get back into bed and fall back to sleep, only to have another even more frightening dream. Pharaoh gathers his counselors and magicians around him, but no one is able to (or wants to) interpret his dreams. It is the chief cupbearer who suddenly remembers Joseph’s last words to him when they both were in prison after Joseph had correctly interpreted the cupbearer’s dream – “Remember me to Pharaoh so as to free me from this place…” (Gen. 40:14). The cupbearer promptly forgot as he gained his freedom… And now, two years later, when a dream interpreter is needed, the cupbearer identifies Joseph – “naar iv’ri – a Hebrew lad” (Gen. 41:12) – as one who just might be able to help Pharaoh.

And, indeed he does, attributing his success in being able to interpret dreams to God (Gen. 41:16), and as a result, Joseph is set beside Pharaoh as his right-hand man, overseeing the economic and agricultural ups and downs of the coming years of plenty and then of famine. Joseph is given a new name by Pharaoh, Zaphenath-paneah, a wife, Asenath, the daughter of the Priest of On, and they will have two sons. Although Joseph is given an Egyptian name, we will only see him called by his Hebrew name – Joseph. Is our Torah text making a point here? Joseph rises to the top in his leadership role and provides counsel to Pharaoh… His family… His clothing… His life… All are the trappings of an Egyptian family. But Joseph is still a Hebrew.

In his book Jew(ish): A Primer, A Memoir, A Manual, A Plea (Little A, Seattle, 2020), Matt Greene writes about how survival [like comedy] “…requires polysemy, being in two places at once… In the early modern period, court Jews were afforded special privileges (read protections) for providing financial counsel to nobles and monarchs. Their survival was contingent on occupying two simultaneous positions: at once the insider and the ‘other’, never sure when the worm might turn and their privileges (read protections) be revoked.” (p. 53)

Joseph comes to serve as a model for the Court Jew. The Court Jews (of the late 1600-1700’s) were really just a handful of people, notable because they had won release from the confines of the somber ghetto world. Their position was as precarious as the whim of their benefactors; and many enjoyed their moment of glory to the hilt. The German Court Jews emulated the Christian courtiers in their fondness for ceremony and formality, for ostentation and display, for costly buildings and elaborate dress, for titles and the semblance of authority. But, this status could turn on a dime… or a mark…

As assimilated as the Court Jews appeared, many of them were very loyal to their Jewish community. They were known as shtadtlanim, intercessors, through whom Jewish petitions were presented to the ruler.

With all his Egyptian trappings, Joseph does not lose his Jewish connection. As the famine worsens, he will ultimately provide safe haven for his “people” – his family, though they will live apart from the Egyptians. When his father, Jacob, dies, Joseph will ask for and receive permission to leave Pharaoh to bury Jacob; and is sent with a retinue of chariots and horsemen in a show of support – or is it “protection”? And Joseph knows that, when he will die, his family will not be allowed to leave the country to bury Joseph with his ancestors. That time will come much later, but before then, there will come a time when a pharaoh will arise who did not know Joseph – and things will change; the “worm will turn” and the protections pf the Hebrews will be revoked.
Rabbi Enid C. Lader (’10) is the rabbi at Beth Israel – The West Temple in Cleveland, Ohio. She is the past-president of ARC (The Association of Rabbis and Cantors – the only joint rabbinical and cantorial professional organization in America), and is the treasurer of the Greater Cleveland Board of Rabbis.